The Pacers' greatest asset lies within their numbers — the number of players capable of contributing to a victory, the number willing to sacrifice when necessary, and the number with a proven ability to step forward and lead.
When Victor Oladipo went down with 4 minutes and 5 seconds remaining in the second quarter of Wednesday's game with Toronto at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with what was described as a serious injury to his right knee and had to be rolled off the court on a stretcher, the complexion of the game and perhaps the season changed dramatically.
The Pacers, however, won the game in much the same manner they won seven of the 11 games they played without their All-Star guard from Nov. 19 through Dec. 10: by sticking together and stepping up. Thaddeus Young, more than anyone, provided both the glue and the ladder.
Young contributed 23 points, a season-high 15 rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots, and two steals to the victory that improved the Pacers' record to 32-15, not to mention the game's most crucial field goal and the verbiage that helped keep his teammates focused on the task of defeating the Eastern Conference frontrunner after three earlier losses.
He scored 12 of his team's 26 points in the fourth quarter, when the Pacers held off a Toronto surge that reduced their lead to a single point with half a minute remaining and wasn't assured until Tyreke Evans — whose role is likely to become significantly enhanced for however long Oladipo is out — hit two foul shots with 7.3 seconds left.
"That's our captain," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said of Young, who shares the player-elected honor with Oladipo. "He's been doing things like that all season long. Tonight he knew that we needed a lift from someone. He just took over. He was defending, he was rebounding, knocking down shots, doing it all. Communicating with the guys in the huddle (about) things we needed to do to stay together. He kind of willed us to this win. He pretty much did everything tonight."
He might pretty much need to do nearly everything for awhile longer.
Oladipo suffered his injury when he planted his right foot while running to defend Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who was received a three-quarter length pass from Kyle Lowry. Oladipo crumbled to the court, fell into Siakam and was called for a foul. He sat up motionless on the court as teammates ran over to check on him, and Pacers athletic trainer Josh Corbeil ran out to place a towel over Oladipo's right knee.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
Oladipo's facial expression did not reflect pain and there was no urgent effort to remove him from the court. Eventually a stretcher was retrieved, Oladipo was lifted onto it and, after a total delay of about seven minutes, was wheeled through the tunnel at the visitor's end of the court amid the backdrop of a standing ovation.
He was taken across the street to St. Vincent Center, where he was X-rayed. An official statement from the Pacers described the injury as "serious" and reported Oladipo would have an MRI on Thursday, at which time more information would be available. His teammates had not spoken with Oladipo or received further information when reporters were allowed into the locker room.
Evans and Myles Turner said Oladipo's kneecap was out of alignment.
"It just didn't look normal," Turner said. "I don't know the best way to describe it, but it didn't look like it's supposed to."
The practical impact of the loss of the team's only All-Star last season and leading scorer (19.2) this season is obvious. The greatest loss, however, might be that of Oladipo's contribution to the team's psyche.
"That kid has a beautiful spirit about him," McMillan said. "He's one of the, if not the most positive guy on this team. He always tries to lift his team, lift us. We've got to lift him now and support him."
The Pacers went about that right away. They led by eight points at the time of Oladipo's injury and lifted that margin to 12 at halftime. It peaked at 15 in the third period, but the Raptors — who played without their leading scorer Kawhi Leonard as well as part-time starters Jonas Valanciunas and OG Anunoby — got within one point twice in the fourth period.
Danny Green's 3-pointer off an offensive rebound left the Pacers with a 105-104 lead. After a timeout, the Pacers' offense was going nowhere as the shot clock wound down. Finally, with three seconds left, Bojan Bogdanovic fed Young, who turned to his right and hit a five-footer on the left baseline over Lowry and the help defense of Siakam.
There was leadership in that shot, too. He talked afterward about "imposing my will on the game," and that was one way he did it — by being stubborn and not moving off the block.
"I saw Bogey driving," Young said. "I was kind of in his way but I was very, very eager to make sure I got that post-up off. I knew I had Kyle Lowry on me. I wasn't moving from the post. Bogey was going to have to pass to me regardless. I stayed there and made the play."
Green missed a 3-pointer from the left wing on Toronto's possession following Toronto's timeout. After another Pacers timeout, Evans took a crosscourt inbound pass, drew a foul and hit the game-clinching free throws.
The Pacers' challenge now becomes keeping pace with the Eastern Conference elites for however long they will be without Oladipo. Wednesday's victory broke a four-game losing streak to the other four upper crust teams — two to Toronto and one each to Boston and Philadelphia.
Doing so will require more of the collaborative effort they had against the Raptors. Myles Turner had 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks; Darren Collison had 17 points, eight assists and no turnovers; Bogdanovic had 16 points and Sabonis, Evans, Cory Joseph, and Doug McDermott contributed off the bench.
To hear them in the postgame locker room, they won't lose confidence or their ambition if Oladipo is out for an extended period.
"It doesn't change anything, man." Turner said. "We've played without Vic. We've got to keep a positive mindset. We can't let this be something that hinders our season. We've got to keep growing as an organization, as a unit."
If they can do it, Young likely will lead the way.
"I have to be a leader each and every day, and that's what I'm going to try to do," he said. "Lead these guys into battle each and every night and make sure we come out with a win."
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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